Nutrition plays a key role in how well we age. Metabolic health involves intricate biochemical reactions that produce energy, use nutrients, and regulate cells. The connection between nutrition and metabolic health significantly influences our lifespan and overall well-being.
National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner explored the five global regions, or "blue zones":
In these regions inhabitants live notably longer and healthier lives, often surpassing 100 years. Not only that, but they have better metabolic health and experience a significantly lower rate of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes compared to the rest of the globe (1).
So why do communities, like the blue zones, have greater longevity and metabolic health?
Blood sugar, body weight, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and lipid metabolism are just a few aspects of metabolic health that impact lifespan (2). When these markers are well controlled through lifestyle habits, we are less likely to experience inflammation and chronic diseases in old age.
The good news is that you can change your metabolism through your diet by personalizing your nutrition to eat the right foods, at the right time.
Take this quiz to assess your metabolic health.
A key dietary practice in these regions is having a substantial breakfast, a medium-sized lunch, and a light dinner, with little to no snacking. Research supports the benefits of eating most of your calories earlier in the day, as it can contribute to weight loss and improve metabolic health (2).
Prioritizing the intake of nourishing foods during the earlier parts of the day, this way of eating improves metabolic flexibility. Although they may not realize it, they are depleting their glycogen stores and tapping into their fat stores for energy.
An essential facet of aging and nutrition is metabolic flexibility, which is the ability to switch from predominantly fat burn and high rates of fatty acid uptake during fasting conditions to the suppression of fat burn and increased glucose uptake, oxidation, and storage under insulin-stimulated conditions (after eating).
This concept is directly connected to developing better metabolic health. As we age, our metabolic flexibility may decline, making it harder for us to switch between burning fats and carbohydrates efficiently.
By consciously nourishing our bodies and promoting metabolic flexibility, we are setting the stage for healthier aging, allowing our bodies to utilize nutrients effectively and respond more adaptable to dietary changes.
The more metabolically flexible an individual is, the more high-functioning mitochondria they have. This allows better utilization of glucose in the blood, and less insulin required to manage that glucose.
Since insulin inhibits fat burn, less of it will promote fat burn, whereas increases can activate enzymes that transform glucose into fat.
For most, adopting the blue zone lifestyle overnight might not be realistic. Personalized nutrition lets you know what to eat and when, however, there are guidelines and tips you can follow to improve your overall health.
That way, you’re more likely to maintain these lifestyle habits long-term and be more likely to enhance your metabolic health. Read on to see a breakdown of these tips:
Buettner recommends changing your environment to support healthier nutrition for longevity. He claims that engineering your kitchen for success could reduce your energy intake by about 100 calories daily. Something as simple as rearranging your countertops, pantry, and refrigerator can redirect your decisions about food.
People are often drawn to what they can see. Keep a cookie jar on your countertop and you’re more inclined to eat cookies. However, you may eat less energy-dense foods like chips, refined crackers, and cookies if you remove them from countertops and eye-level shelves in your pantry (3). As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.
Along those same lines, place more nutritious foods like nuts, whole grain products, canned and fresh vegetables, and beans at eye level in your pantry and refrigerator. These foods will be the first thing you see when it’s time to cook a meal.
Western diets are heavy in packaged foods, refined grains, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products. The saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar in these foods can damage metabolic health, increase inflammation, and contribute to chronic disease when consumed regularly (4). It’s safe to say, individuals living in the Blue Zones eat differently.
Eating a whole food plant-based diet doesn’t always mean eliminating meat, it just means that plants make up most of your meals and snacks. Although beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains make up most of the Blue Zone diet, these individuals still eat meat -mostly pork- about five times a month. What’s more, they keep their serving size of meat to only 3-4oz, about the size of a deck of cards.
Aging is often associated with less physical activity, leading to a reduction in muscle strength and muscle mass. While it’s a common misconception that to be physically fit you must join a gym or use equipment, natural movement is a key lifestyle factor that contributes to living a longer and healthier life among people in the Blue Zones.
Natural movements like walking, gardening, housework, and building are types of physical activities that take place daily. Many Blue Zone communities don’t have mechanical conveniences like cars or tractors to help them get work done, so instead, they do it themselves.
Make natural movement a part of your everyday life to improve endurance, build muscle, and even enhance your metabolism.
A positive relationship between sleep quality, metabolic health, and successful aging has been reported in centenarians, indicating the importance of healthy sleep habits to longevity (7).
Getting enough sleep can improve your overall health, which may help boost your longevity. While inadequate sleep can have the opposite effect.
Consistent sleep habits play a pivotal role in promoting longevity by facilitating essential cellular repair and regeneration processes. During deep sleep stages, the body initiates critical metabolic pathways, such as the clearance of toxic waste products from the brain and the regulation of glucose metabolism.
Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can disrupt these crucial mechanisms, leading to an increased risk of chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Developing social connections in a society obsessed with video games and smartphones is challenging, but belonging to a tight-knit social circle could add years to your life. Increased social integration may be associated with a lower risk of inflammation and age-related diseases (8). Consider setting your electronic devices aside to spend more time building relationships with those living a lifestyle that promotes longevity.
The same can be said for unhealthy habits. Surround yourself with sedentary people, those who overconsume alcohol, or those who feel lonely, and your health may take a downward turn.
In a world that often prioritizes “hustle culture,” it’s no wonder that many people struggle with poor mental health and metabolic disorders. Blue Zone communities, on the other hand, practice downshifting by living a slower intentional lifestyle.
They weave stress-reducing habits into their daily routines. They take naps, attend happy hours, take time to honor their ancestors, and pray.
Poor mental health from stress leads to inflammation, which is associated with diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. Chronic stress may burden you with age-related diseases and shave years off your lifespan.
Personalized nutrition, combined with an environment that encourages healthy choices, can improve overall health. Whether it's organizing your kitchen to promote healthier choices or embracing a slower, more intentional lifestyle to manage stress, remember: every little change counts.
As you embark on this journey towards a healthier life, consider these practices not as a short-term diet or regimen, but as a lifelong commitment to wellbeing.
1. Kalache, A., Bazinet, R. P., Carlson, S., Evans, W. J., Kim, C. H., Lanham-New, S., Visioli, F., & Griffiths, J. C. (2021). Science-based policy: Targeted nutrition for all ages and the role of bioactives. European Journal of Nutrition, 60(Suppl 1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02662-5
2. Jakubowicz D, Barnea M, Wainstein J, Froy O. High caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Dec;21(12):2504-12. doi: 10.1002/oby.20460. Epub 2013 Jul 2. PMID: 23512957.
3. Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(5), 318-321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616637066
4. Pahwa R, Goyal A, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2022 Aug 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
5. Mullins AP, Arjmandi BH. Health Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition: Focus on Beans in Cardiometabolic Diseases. Nutrients. 2021 Feb 5;13(2):519. doi: 10.3390/nu13020519. PMID: 33562498; PMCID: PMC7915747.
6. Chung, N., Park, Y., Kim, J., Park, Y., Hwang, H., Lee, H., Han, S., So, J., Park, J., & Lim, K. (2018). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): A component of total daily energy expenditure. Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry, 22(2), 23-30. https://doi.org/10.20463/jenb.2018.0013
7. Tafaro, L., Cicconetti, P., Baratta, A., Brukner, N., Ettorre, E., Marigliano, V., & Cacciafesta, M. (2007). Sleep quality of centenarians: Cognitive and survival implications. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 44, 385-389. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archger.2007.01.054
8. Yang YC, Boen C, Gerken K, Li T, Schorpp K, Harris KM. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jan 19;113(3):578-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511085112. Epub 2016 Jan 4. PMID: 26729882; PMCID: PMC4725506.